FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Kenneth S. Hemphill denied a report by the Texas Baptist Standard that his retirement from the Fort Worth, Texas, seminary was prompted by an ultimatum from a small group of SBC leaders, calling the allegation “speculation that borders on libel.”
The April 21 story by Mark Wingfield, managing editor of the Standard, relied on a number of unnamed sources to report about Hemphill’s April 8 retirement announcement after nine years of service. In a letter to the Standard April 23, Hemphill wrote, “Slander and gossip damage the precious name of our Lord, the cause of His Kingdom, and hurt the body of Christ.”
According to “most insider accounts,” Wingfield wrote, “Hemphill was urged to leave the Southwestern presidency by a small group of SBC leaders. Sources both in Fort Worth and North Carolina told the Baptist Standard Hemphill had been called to a meeting in North Carolina a few years ago in which he was told either to resign or be fired.”
Hemphill asserted in his letter to the paper that no such meeting ever occurred, and that the Standard could have called him to clarify what the meeting was about.
“No group of SBC leaders has ever met with me about a deal to remain at or leave Southwestern. Mark refers to a North Carolina meeting where I was ‘reportedly’ instructed to resign or be fired. No such meeting ever occurred! The only meeting in North Carolina was held at my request over the Christmas holidays two years ago at Calvary Baptist Church with my three mentors, Mark Corts, Jimmy Draper, and Charles Fuller. I asked them to pray with me concerning my desire to move back to pastoral ministry,” Hemphill wrote.
Draper, president of LifeWay Christian Resources, and a former longtime pastor respected across the Southern Baptist Convention, supported Hemphill’s claim, saying that Wingfield’s assertion was “patently a lie.”
“This whole notion of a meeting where he was given an ultimatum is ludicrous. Ken asked me to contact Mark Corts and Charles Fuller to pray with him, and because of Corts’ health, we decided the meeting would have to take place in North Carolina where he was. I took a day between Christmas and New Years and flew out there to join them. We talked and prayed for a day. None of us other than Ken had anything to do with Southwestern. We just met and prayed for him because he was concerned about his own ministry. He missed being in a pastoral role, as I do every day.”
Paige Patterson, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., named by the Standard as one possible successor to Hemphill, said that he also was unaware of any meeting between SBC leaders and Hemphill.
“If any group ever met with Dr. Hemphill outside of his own trustees I am unaware of it,” Patterson said. “If they had, and I believe Dr. Hemphill when he says they didn’t, they wouldn’t have asked him to step down. That is not their prerogative. This is a conclusion he came to after prayer, and I know that he had been feeling for a long time that he would like to be back in a pastoral role.”
Wingfield further claimed that some leaders of the convention essentially brokered a deal “to allow Hemphill to stay until now and then to be moved to the specially created position in Nashville — where he would continue to be paid for the next year by Southwestern.”
Hemphill wrote that no group of SBC leaders had ever met with him to discuss a deal to remain at or leave Southwestern. Draper, Patterson and Morris H. Chapman, president of the SBC Executive Committee, said Wingfield had erred there as well.
“There was never any meeting I know anything about to broker a position for him here in Nashville. We didn’t even know this [Empowering Kingdom Growth] emphasis was going to come about until it was approved last June,” Draper said.
Draper also said it was only in the past two months that the need became clear to have an individual serve as a spokesperson for the SBC-wide Empowering Kingdom Growth initiative. “Because of Ken’s work with our church growth concepts in the early 1990s, his name came up as someone who could fulfill that role,” Draper said.
Patterson said that few could have conceived how “keenly suited” Hemphill would be for the role of national EKG spokesman.
“He came into the seminary at a most difficult moment with an incredible gentleness and sweetness of spirit. It prevailed and won the day,” Patterson said. “When I think of a consistent exposition of genuine Christianity, I think of Dr. Hemphill. I also believe that if I were setting out to find someone to take the message of EKG to the churches, in a manner which they could understand, I could not have found anyone’s gifts more perfectly suited to the task than his,” Patterson said.
Chapman, in a statement to Baptist Press, refuted Wingfield’s implications that he had taken part in “brokering a deal” to move Hemphill to Nashville and denounced any attempt to bring into question the underlying vision of EKG.
“I have never participated in a meeting in North Carolina, nor anywhere else, in which a ‘deal’ was ‘brokered’ with Ken Hemphill,” Chapman said. “In fact, I have no knowledge of any such meeting other than what I read in the article by Mr. Wingfield. The first I heard of Dr. Hemphill’s availability was a few weeks ago, when in a conversation with Dr. Jimmy Draper, discussion of the possibility arose. Those working with the EKG Task Force took Dr. Hemphill’s willingness to devote his considerable gifts and energies to EKG as a direct and welcomed answer to prayer.
“The implications drawn by the Baptist Standard and the motivations assigned to my decision about EKG leadership are not even partially true,” Chapman said. “My greatest concern is that, left as stated, the article will diminish the importance of Dr. Hemphill’s role as national strategist for EKG. As I said in an open statement two weeks ago, I am extremely thrilled and energized that Dr. Hemphill has agreed to serve the Southern Baptist Convention as national strategist for Empowering Kingdom Growth.
“I have earnestly hoped, and deeply believed, that EKG may very well be a vehicle God uses to renew Southern Baptists’ vision and zeal for the Kingdom of God and His righteousness” Chapman added. “We will continue to trust in God, and believe in the good sense of Southern Baptists to see through any attempt to draw us aside from God’s vision.”
The chairman of the seminary’s board of trustees, David Allen, also took exception to Wingfield’s story. The allegations in the Standard about the North Carolina meeting and a brokered deal are “patently false,” Allen said.
“I spoke with Ken personally, and there was no time when he met with SBC leaders who said he had to resign. Likewise, there was never a meeting of trustees where any individual or group on the board of trustees at the seminary asked him to resign,” Allen said.
Miles Seaborn, former chairman of Southwestern’s board of trustees, also said that any speculation that Hemphill was forced to retire or leave early was false. Wingfield quoted Seaborn, who chaired the search committee that invited Hemphill to Southwestern, as saying April 8 about Hemphill’s retirement that “This is God’s will.”
“What I actually said was that he [Hemphill] feels that this is God’s will. I regret that the misquote might have caused some to question the reason for this change,” Seaborn said.
“The trustees of Southwestern were saddened by my recent announcement, but supportive of my desire to be obedient to God’s will,” Hemphill wrote.
Hemphill also responded to claims that the removal of David Crutchley from the position of dean of the theology school at Southwestern was mandated, as the article in the Standard alleged. He reassigned Crutchley in December 2001, a decision he claimed was his and his alone based on his understanding of Crutchley’s “gifts and passion.” “I believe then and believe now that it was a decision that was in his best interest and that of the seminary,” he wrote.
Expressing dismay at the Standard’s claim that “those close to him report that he and his wife, Paula, have been deeply hurt by the whole ordeal,” Hemphill wrote that he and his family were grieved at the printed speculation and rumors about his retirement and the “appearance that others know more than we do about our lives.”
“Texas Baptist churches deserve and should demand a paper more concerned with truth than rumor, unspecified reports, and anonymous allegations,” Hemphill wrote. “To restore trust in Southern Baptist life we must speak the truth in love. Slander and gossip damage the precious name of our Lord, the cause of His Kingdom, and hurt the body of Christ.”
Marv Knox, editor of the Standard, responded to Hemphill’s letter informing him that it would appear in the April 28 edition of the paper. In a separate call from Baptist Press April 24 to inquire whether Wingfield’s story would be retracted, Knox’s voice mail stated he was out of the office until April 28.
Based on reporting by Art Toalston & Gregory Tomlin.